Why Students Need the Poetic Mode of Knowledge

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A 2021 study found that the levels of 9-13-year-olds who read for fun on a daily basis have reached their lowest points since data on this topic was first collected in 1984. Where once rebellious students might have hidden a novel inside their textbook during science class to sneak a peek at what happened in Chapter Three, now it seems parents are lucky if their children even deign to crack open a book not required for school.

How, one might ask, did we reach this point?

In starting to understand, it’s important to realize that waning interest in reading is just another symptom of a larger problem, just like falling standardized test scores or faltering classroom engagement.

All these maladies are symptoms of disease whose roots reach much deeper – down to the educational philosophy that has been guiding the institutions and educators who shape these students. The unfortunate reality is that most of these educators have focused almost exclusively on the utility of learning.

Meanwhile, proper attention to the beauty of learning is conspicuously absent.

How the Poetic Mode of Knowledge Challenges Utilitarian Education

Helpful to this discussion is a concept American classics professor John Senior called “the poetic mode of knowledge.” Senior noted that there are three specific modes of knowledge in traditional Western philosophy – the scientific, metaphysical, and rhetorical – and, following Aquinas, Senior added to these the concept of the poetic mode. To Senior, poetic knowledge was the process of learning through experience, where “truths are grasped intuitively.” It is the disposition of wonder in a soul that comes from direct contact with reality. It speaks first to the heart rather than the intellect; it operates primarily by eliciting loves rather than rational processes. And that is why it is so effective in motivating students. 

It’s why the Greeks began education with gymnastics and what they called “music,” which included poetry, songs, and drama – reveling in the beauty of nature and language for its own sake. While through scientific knowledge, students learn that a flower is made up of stamen, pistil, petal, and stem, through poetic knowledge, they learn that a flower is beautiful and good. This mode of knowing is eschewed by modern education because of its lack of utility – memorizing Chaucer and stargazing are unlikely to land on the top line of a student’s resume. But it this mode of knowledge that humanizes – it is this mode of knowledge that enriches the soul and draws it heavenward. 

Education in the poetic mode should be a large part of K-12 education, but unfortunately, as Senior also points out, most schools nowadays attempt to teach the science of poetry and the science of science while ignoring the poetry of both.

Experiencing Truth: The Sensory Operation of the Poetic Mode

Because so much of the poetic mode concerns how it is sensed, physical experiences and atmosphere are critical instruments of its conveyance. Consider, for example, the role of the liturgy and the Holy Mass throughout the centuries: the most stunning art and architecture, the most sublime music, and the most exquisite prayers were all reserved for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Attend Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica today, and you can feel how it engages the entire person, from the smell of incense and the sounds of the Gregorian chant to the architectural wonders of the structure itself. All those sensory elements are critical to the conveying of truth because they speak to the soul in tangible ways. Truth is experienced in a poignant way that can’t be replicated by a textbook or in a sterile conference center with drywall and folding tables.

How We Incorporate the Poetic Mode into Our Approach

At Holy Spirit Prep, we believe that giving our students an experience of the poetic mode of knowledge is vital to their flourishing. That’s why we offer Mass and the sacraments weekly and incorporate music into our core curriculum from the earliest ages. It’s why we surround our students with classical architecture and immerse them in the timeless masterpieces of art and literature. By introducing them to beauty and sublimity, we commit ourselves not only to the development of their minds, but the uplifting of their souls.



Alex Sullivan

Upper School Assistant Principal for Students

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